In a climate where belonging is slotted, falling in love is a risk, the music of the monsoons can be a soothing balm, an experience of joy and a reason for relief. To farmers, it signifies fertility and life. Folk songs welcoming the first showers are sung in rural India even today.
All the major cities of the subcontinent — from Mohenjo-Daro, Lothal to Varanasi — grew on the banks of major rivers. The Mughals were obsessed with water as they came from parched lands. Canals, ponds, lakes and fountains are integral to the architecture of their reign. The Mughals were also great patrons of art, and water and rain are recurring motifs in miniature paintings and music of the Mughal period. Monsoon raagas were popular during this period, too.
Many monsoons have passed since the poet Kalidasa wrote the verses of Meghdootam; centuries since Miya Tansen is said to have created the stupendous raag Miyan ki Malhar, or since Baiju Bawra, Mahanvilas Kanh (Tansen’s son) and Meerabai are said to have invoked rains by singing various forms of raag Malhar. But music continues to be central to experiencing monsoon.
Hundreds of songs have been written about the drama of the onset of rain. They are replete with the imagery of the mor (peacock) and the papiha (brainfever bird) singing their love songs, and of the young woman sending messages to her husband via the dark clouds, asking him to return home. In the north Indian classical repertoire, sub-genres like the Kajri — largely from the Awadh and Banaras-Mirzapur regions of UP — and the Jhoola (swings were an important part of enjoying the cool breeze) are sung during the season. Siddheshwari Devi’s rendition of Jhamak jhuki aayi badariya kaari; Girija Devi’s Barsan laagi saawan bundiya and Begum Akhtar’s Jiya mora lehraye are classic examples.
For khayal aficionados, this is the time to let the malhars wash over you — from Sur-Malhar, Nat Malhar, Ramdasi Malhar to Gaud Malhar and Megh Malhar, the notes and glides in the raag almost seem to coalesce with the looming clouds and the tempestuous thunder.
While classical music has many offerings to celebrate the rain, it is interesting to see how popular music, particularly Bollywood, portrays the rains. Innumerable songs have stayed with us through the decades, be it Pyar hua ikrar hua from Shri 420 (1955), or the playful Ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958). In fact, well into the 1960s, several songs adhered to the grammar of the malhars. Don’t we remember the classic Bole re papihara from Guddi (1971) by Vani Jayram? Or, the lilting Garjat barsat sawan aayo re from Barsaat ki Raat (1960), set to the majestic Gaud Malhar?
Of late, these connections are far and few between. Now, you’d find a “sizzling” item number to match the monsoon mood — Sawan me lag gayi aag, for instance, was singer Mika’s claim to fame. But let’s face it, our bandishein, film songs and their imagery have little to do with our reality — where the environment is held with little regard, and where rain creates urban chaos and distress.